Even if you're not from New York City, you're probably familiar with its power trio of art museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA and the Guggenheim. But as fabulous as these places are, they represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the art museums Gotham has to offer. And they're not just limited to Manhattan: Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx all boast major institutions. To help you find the best of them, check out our guide to the top art museums in NYC. And when you plan your visit, make sure to consult our guide to free museum days.
Top art museums in NYC
It would take multiple visits to fully appreciate this sprawling–as in 13-acres of Central Park sprawling–collection of over 5,000 years of art from every corner of the world. As one of the biggest museums in the world, the gorgeous late 19th century neo-classical institution displays some of the finest examples of art spanning from mummified royalty of ancient times to avant garde fashion couture from last year’s runway. Visitors young and old are mesmerized by the Temple of Dendur, an Egyptian temple from 10 B.C. that was transposed from its Nile-side location to the bright, sun drenched Sackler Wing overlooking a reflective pool. Other highlights include the impressive array of European and Asian armor, Grecian sculptures, medieval art and contemporary photography. After hours of exploring relax by a fountain in the indoor sculpture garden or ponder what it all means in the Astor Chinese Garden Court, nestled off the Asian Art galleries. Advanced online tickets will allow museum-goers to skip the lines, but, word of warning you’ll have to pay the full suggested donation ($25, seniors $17, students $12). Budget-conscious art fans should come early on weekdays, pay what they wish and come often–the special exhibits change every few months and vary from big-name retrospective block busters to displays of little-known gems.
Considering the MoMA’s reputation for having one of the world’s finest collections of art from the 18th century through today, it’s no surprise that around nearly every corner of the venerated museum is a seminal piece by an artist trumpeted in art history or coveted by contemporary collectors. During the height of tourist season, around Christmas and again in late spring and summer, expect a shoving-match just to catch a momentary glance at Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Special exhibitions, including retrospectives of masters like surrealist René Magritte and large installations like the blockbuster Rain Room, have enough draw that some people will wait for hours just for the one exhibit. Meanwhile, no matter the time of year or temporary display, cash-strapped New Yorkers come in droves at the end of the work-week for free friday nights (4pm-8pm). If you really want to experience the museum and all it has to offer go on a weekday and buy your all-inclusive ticket online ($25). You’ll skip the line and find yourself unencumbered as you stop to contemplate the meaning of time in front of Salvador Dali’s melted-clock painting The Persistance of Memory or checking out the movie times in the attached theater.
While the Guggenheim’s collection of modern art works is certainly impressive, it is impossible to separate the museum’s contents from its form with architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s brilliant and controversial design. Opened in 1959 on Fifth Ave across from Central Park, just months after Wright’s death, the concrete inverted ziggernaut (a Babylonian step pyramid), stomped on the expectations and tradition of clean square galleries exemplified and cherished by the neighboring Upper East Side museums, like the nearby Metropolitan Museum. Instead Wright combined his use of geometric shapes and nature, to create a gallery space that presented art along a flowing, winding spiral, much like a nautilus shell, with little in the way of walls to separate artists, ideas or time periods. Best experienced as Wright intended by taking the elevator to the top of the museum and following the gentle slope down, the art is revealed at different angles along the descent and across the open circular rotunda in a way that even the most well known Monet landscape might seem like a revelation. This unusual, bold way of approaching art, both as it is displayed and viewed, has inspired spectacular exhibits by highly-conceptual contemporary artists such as a series of films by Matthew Barney and hundred of Maurizio Cattelan's sculptures hanging from the ceiling. Considering the steep price of admission ($25, students and seniors $18, children under 12 free), make sure to take a break from the captivat
After nearly 50 years in its Marcel-Breur-designed building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street, the Whitney Museum decamped in 2015 to a brand new home in Lower Manhattan's Meatpacking District, conceived by international starchitect Renzo Piano. Planted at the foot of the Highline along Ganesvoort Street, the new Whitney building boasts some 63, 000 square feet of both indoor and outdoor exhibition space. Founded in 1931 by sculptor and art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt, the Whitney is dedicated to presenting the work of American artists. Its collection holds about 15,000 pieces by nearly 2,000 artists, including Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Edward Hopper (the museum holds his entire estate), Jasper Johns, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O’Keeffe and Claes Oldenburg. Still, the museum’s reputation rests mainly on its temporary shows, particularly the exhibition everyone loves to hate, the Whitney Biennial. Held in even-numbered years, the Biennial remains the most prestigious (and controversial) assessment of contemporary art in America.
Brooklyn’s premier institution is a less-crowded alternative to Manhattan’s bigger-name spaces, though the innovative and impactful items found inside are just as important as anything you'll find in the city. The museum, found on the edge of the sprawling Prospect Park, has a large holding of Egyptian art as well as the famous feminist piece, The Dinner Party, by Judy Chicago. Works by such Impressionists masters as Cézanne, Monet and Degas are also included in the collection along with with prime examples of Early American Art, period rooms and so much more.
The opulent residence that houses a private collection of great masters (from the 14th through the 19th centuries) was originally built for industrialist Henry Clay Frick. The firm of Carrère & Hastings designed the 1914 structure in an 18th-century European style, with a beautiful interior court and reflecting pool. The permanent collections include world-class paintings, sculpture and furniture by the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Renoir and French cabinetmaker Jean-Henri Riesener.
The New Museum takes its name from The New School, where it originally opened in 1977. After a move to Soho, where the it became a fixture througout the ’80s and ’90s, the New Museum moved into its current location in 2007: A bold, purposed built seven-story building, designed by the cutting-edge Tokyo architectural firm Sejima + Nishizawa/SANAA. It houses three main gallery levels, a theater, a café operated by Hester Street Fair and roof terraces. As it has throughout its history, the New Musem focuses it program on emerging—and important but under-recognized—artists.
Housed in a distinctive Romanesque Revival building (a former public school), PS1 mounts cutting-edge shows and hosts an acclaimed international studio program. Artwork crops up in every corner, from the stairwells to the roof. PS1 became an affiliate of MoMA in 1999, and sometimes stages collaborative exhibitions. Reflecting the museum’s global outlook, it has focused in recent years on such luminaries as Janet Cardiff and Olafur Eliasson. It also hosts summer’s popular Saturday-afternoon party, Warm Up.
Ever before the Whitney moved to its Meatpacking District location, plans were afoot for The Metropolitan Museum of Art to take over the Whitney’s former Marcel Breuer-designed home on Madison Avenue. Breuer’s name graces what’s basically an entirely new institution intended to make the Met’s a major player in the current art scene: In addition to housing the Met’s collection of modern and contemporary art, the museum mounts major exhibitions of recent artists.
The Jewish Museum, housed in the 1908 Warburg Mansion, mounts temporary exhibitions of contemproary and modern art and also has a substantial collection of artworks of art and Judaica. There is a permanent exhibit specifically for children, as well as a restuarant that includes an Uptown outpost of Russ & Daughters, the iconic Lower East Side purveyors of Kosher delicacies like lox, sable and whitefish.
This elegant addition to the city’s museum scene is devoted entirely to late-19th- and early-20th-century German and Austrian fine and decorative arts. Located in a renovated brick-and-limestone mansion that was built by the architects of the New York Public Library, this brainchild of the late art dealer Serge Sabarsky and cosmetics mogul Ronald S. Lauder has the largest concentration of works by Gustav Klimt (including his iconic Adele Bloch-Bauer I) and Egon Schiele outside Vienna. You’ll also find a bookstore, a chic (and expensive) design shop and the Old World–inspired Café Sabarsky, serving updated Austrian cuisine and ravishing Viennese pastries.
When Studio Museum opened in 1968, it was the first black fine-arts museum in the country, and it remains the place to go for historical insight into African-American art and the art of the African diaspora. Under the leadership of director Thelma Golden (formerly of the Whitney), this neighborhood favorite has evolved into the city’s most exciting showcase for contemporary African-American artists.
Located in Spanish Harlem (a.k.a. El Barrio), El Museo del Barrio is dedicated to the work of Latino artists who reside in the U.S., as well as Latin American masters. The 6,500-piece permanent collection ranges from pre-Colombian artifacts to contemporary installations. The space also features updated galleries, an exposed courtyard for programming and events, and a Pan-Latino cafe that serves tacos, chili, and rice and beans.
Located in a building originally constructed to house the now defunct Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) features cutting edge examples of ceramics, furniture design, fiber art and metalsmithing, all involving “processes ranging from the artisanal to the digital,“ as its mission statement put its. As a result, MAD often mounts some of the liveliest shows of contemporary art around. Packed with amazing things to look at, MAD is definitely worth a visit.
As its name suggests, the American Folk Art Museum celebrates traditional craft-based work, and the work of the self-taught, including Outsider artists. Its collection ranges from visionary works by Henry Darger and Martin Ramirez to quilts and Early American portrait paintings. AFAM also hosts performances, tours, discussions and other activities for every age.